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The Future of the Workplace Handshake

Workplace Handshake

May 7, 2021

2020 brought a myriad of opinions and articles about whether the handshake was dead. The cause of death according to an article in the New Yorker? “Sudden awareness by the general population that every surface on earth is misted with an invisible, potentially lethal cocktail of viral droplets.”

Disease experts do not think we should ever shake hands again. Doctors have long been split on whether shaking hands in a healthcare environment was advisable. Some felt it was a sure way to spread disease to patients. Others felt that not shaking hands would erode the patient doctor bond even though fewer than 10% of patients wanted to be greeted by a handshake.

The Workplace Handshake

Yet others point to the positive benefits of shaking hands. Neuroscientists say the areas in the brain involved in processing rewards are activated when we shake hands, much like when we eat food. Welcome touch lowers stress and releases oxytocin which promotes bonding.

Touch, like we experience in the handshake, reduces aggression according to the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. Just look at primates that spend time grooming each other. Their touch is a way of making relationships.

For over 2,800 years the handshake was an appropriate way for humans to come in contact. Many believed it evolved as a method to show you weren’t holding a weapon. It represented relationship and democracy. Everyone was extended a hand. It was familiar and accepted. So can it really be dead … or dying?

Time will tell.

The Future of Greetings

All in all, we haven’t found an adequate replacement for the handshake and what it represents. Waiting patiently in line to replace it are the elbow bump, the hand on the heart and the wave to name a few. Some etiquette experts suggest replacing the wordless handshake with your voice. They propose announcing verbally you are going to be extra careful and refrain from shaking hands to avoid connecting. This can be difficult to pull off when approached with someone eager to connect.

As of now nobody’s buying into any one form and this means interactions are not only devoid of an agreed upon way to connect but they are … awkward.

How do we make the inevitable greetings less awkward? At Tero International we have always promoted that the actual hand clasp and shake were the third part of a greeting already happening. The handshake begins with eye contact. Lock eyes with the person you are greeting. Arrange yourself shoulder to shoulder (an appropriate distance apart). Being in sync with posture non-verbally communicates you are in alignment. Whether you clasp and shake or not, your eyes and posture are already communicating you are welcoming the other person in.

For the time being, once you have secured eyes and aligned your body posture, you will have to decide what comes next. There is no definitive appropriate response as one size will not fit all. The only guidance we have to follow is what we know of etiquette in general. Etiquette is not about rules, it is about respect. Awareness and consideration of others in our interactions is the main goal. We cannot control what we get, but we can control what we give. Since we are at a crossroads in thought and practice, focusing our attention on others through eye contact and aligned posture takes precedence, no matter what we choose to follow it up with.

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Deborah Rinner

Deborah Rinner is vice president and chief learning officer for Tero International, a recognized leader in corporate training. She is a certified interculturalist and licensed corporate etiquette consultant by The Protocol School of Washington DC. Deb is also co-author of the award-winning book, "Your Invisible Toolbox."